Holding the rope: WKU wins C-USA East Division

WKU celebrates the game winning goal by Katie Erwin (13) after the game against Charlotte on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Nick Kieser

All the WKU Soccer program needed in the 2021 regular season finale was 40 seconds.

Junior Lyric Schmidt’s push pass floated right toward the Charlotte net, and sophomore Katie Erwin headed the ball past senior goalkeeper Abby Stapelton.

Erwin’s first collegiate match win etched WKU’s name into program history, claiming the first Conference USA regular season title. This is the Lady Toppers’ first regular season title since 2013 being a member of the Sun Belt conference.

“This has been our team’s goal the whole time, is to set a legacy for ourselves,” Erwin said after winning the title. “We have another week of play to complete that legacy.”

Head Coach Jason Neidell said the program has been talking about winning championships for the last couple of years.

“This has been a group that’s been disciplined and determined and committed through this whole thing and never wanted to use the pandemic as an excuse for anything,” Neidell said. “They rolled up their sleeves and got to work and grinded. Now they get all the rewards of their efforts.”

This season’s theme for WKU was holding the rope, which means each player has their part on the team to be successful this spring.

The road to posting the best record in the C-USA East Division was not an easy one.

According to the WKU Big Red Restart Plan, the Lady Toppers arrived on the Hill on July 6, and three weeks later experienced its first positive case of COVID-19.

As a result, Neidell shut it all down as soon as there was an inkling that one of his athletes displayed symptoms.

“It really, really stunk,” Neidell said in September. “All of these parents have entrusted me with the health and care of their daughters. That’s my primary responsibility is to make sure we are keeping these kids safe.”

July 27 was when the first positive case surfaced, but the program already had a planned break for three days later; it just started sooner.

Neidell said the program is in a much better place because of going through that process.

“Really grateful for the opportunity to coach the game that I love to coach and for our players to be able to get out on the field and compete and play the game they love,” Neidell said.

He added that the pandemic has reminded us to appreciate these moments and that was one of the messages he told his team prior to playing Charlotte.

“This was a defining moment for our team, and they lived the moment tonight,” Neidell said.

WKU finishes the regular season allowing seven goals, which is the fewest in conference play. The Lady Toppers also finished with 19 goals scored, the third most in C-USA.

Sophomore goalkeeper Ashley Kobylinski held down the fort in net this season, posting a C-USA best four shutouts. Junior Ambere Barnett paced the Lady Toppers offensively notching six goals and 14 points this spring.

Barnett was named C-USA’s Player and Midfielder of the Year on April 12, 2021 prior to the first game of the postseason. 

“The momentum has been building up since July and to be able to follow through with the goals we set almost a year ago — it’s special,” Erwin said.

Senior captain Avery Jacobsen will make her second appearance in the postseason during her time on the Hill. In Jacobsen’s first two seasons the Lady Toppers missed the playoffs and posted a combined record of 12-17-5.

Jacobsen said prior to the first exhibition match of the season she felt like this was a team that could bring a C-USA trophy back to Bowling Green.

“Winning a conference championship is particularly meaningful for her,” Neidell said of Jacobsen. “She has seen the highs and lows of this program.”

Neidell said the 20 years he’s been head coach has gone by in the blink of an eye.

“A lot of gratefulness for the opportunity to be here and be here for as long as I can because it’s not normal,” Neidell said.

Neidell said the Lady Toppers will rest and recover prior to the first game of the postseason against Alabama-Birmingham on April 13 at 11 a.m.

The Lady Toppers previously played UAB in an exhibition match back on Oct. 23, taking down the Blazers 2-1. WKU will look to win its first conference postseason game since 2013.

Sports Editor Nick Kieser can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Nick on Twitter at @KieserNick.